What was it like inside Mount Eden Prison in the early 1960s? A manuscript discovered among Ernie Webber’s papers tells a colourful story. Himself a prisoner, Webber encouraged the writing of another inmate, Bert Pimley, whose novel The Rock Orchid is based on experiences inside. According to Webber, prison authorities applied ‘some viciousness’ when they discovered the manuscript, which they destroyed. Another copy was smuggled out, and Webber later tried to get it published. He was unsuccessful, but the typescript survives in his papers along with related letters and illustrations. The title refers to a character who resembles the beautiful but parasitic rock orchid.
Here are a few excerpts (with original spelling and punctuation):
Officer Desmond Rice was certainly a pathological study. Any time the women in the female division started a riot, Rice went across wearing a boxing glove on one hand, to knock a little sense into them. He got great satisfaction from this, mostly because he could not hurt his hand with the glove on it, nor leave marks on the women, but even if he did, who would believe such accusations, levelled at a responsible deputy principle officer? It stretched people’s credulity a lot when officer Dinny Burns and another, broke a girl’s arm, because she was a trifle independent. This was New Zealand. Such things could never happen here.
* * * * *
“If you get shifted to the basement, try not to get the ‘craps’,” advised Horne.
“Why? Is that bad?” Pintal wanted to know.
“It’s bad enough. There’s over ninety men living down there, and only one crapper. Of course, you could always use the pot in the cell if you liked.”
Also in the basement was the shower-house, kit-locker, and the “pound”, that dismal row of cold, empty punishment cells reserved for bread and water victims. Within the encircling walls was a fully-equipt boot-making shop, a tailor shop, a joinery department, laundry, tin-smiths shop, and a small department devoted to the manufacture of mail-bags. This prison even boasted a school-room and a chapel.
As they wandered about, Pintal and Horne were approached by a grinning chap, who told Cliff that young Tipu had just had a spot of bad luck. Got caught with Symes, said the chap, and went off, chuckling, to spread the news.
What did he mean by that, Cliff?” Berne asked.
“Tipu’s got bad habits. Gets himself shagged now and then by Bill Symes”
* * * * *
Gus Powell, the receiving officer, banned all comics that had guns in them, and all cheap books that had guns or half-dressed women on the covers. This was New Zealand’s toughest prison, not a Boys Home.
The officers in the sentry towers whiled away the tedious daylight hours furtively reading cow-boy books, and wing officers dodged into cells at any opportunity, to read a few chapters of almost anything lying about.
The magazine Man, a harmless monthly edition given to short stories and pictures of scantily-clad females, was banned, as also was the magazine People. But if one looked about enough, both of these editions could be found somewhere in the prison. The New Zealand weekly scandal paper, Truth, was definitely off-limits within the confines of the Mount, although a copy could usually be had, if perhaps a few days late.
Webber’s papers came to Hocken twenty years ago, but it was only during recent arrangement and description work that The Rock Orchid and other treasures came to light. Webber (1906-1983) was an intrepid New Zealand businessman. He was involved with the McArthur investment scandal of the 1930s, sold munitions in China during World War Two, and invested in forestry and other ventures back in New Zealand. He had passions for travel, entertaining, railways, and book collecting, and was part of New Zealand’s underground gay culture (the reason for one of his two spells in prison). All of these aspects of his life come through in his varied collection of personal and business papers of over ten shelf metres.
Blog post prepared by David Murray, Assistant Archivist, from Webber, Cyril Ernie Richard : Papers (MS-3333/197 and 198).
For a look at Ernie’s interest in collecting Railways books see